Sunoco fire extinguished; responses studied

A student walks to Linwood Elementary School the morning after an overnight explosion at the Sunoco Marcus Hook refinery.

The fire that accompanied Sunday night's nerve-and-window-rattling explosion at the sprawling Sunoco refinery in Marcus Hook has finally been knocked down. Officials last night declared the fire out during their 10 o'clock briefing - nearly 24 hours after the first explosion rocked the facility and its neighbors.

Sunoco officials also said that they did not have a cause for the spectacular blaze, and were not certain when operations would return to normal.

No one was injured - a miracle to union officials, who said workers commonly patrol those grounds, and a relief to the many who grabbed their children and fled in the night.

"Everybody was panicked," said Donna Turner, 41, who lives near the site.

Even as others watched the flames from their lawns, Turner kept all the windows shut to protect her four children. Her husband, Clark, was at the refinery fighting the fire, and the only information she could get about what was happening was from television.

Yesterday, officials said no formal evacuation notices were given or needed.

The 781-acre Sunoco refinery is a maze of tanks, pipes, and smokestacks on the Pennsylvania-Delaware border, capable of refining and reprocessing 175,000 barrels of oil a day. The explosion occurred in Delaware.

Officials from that state said air monitors had not detected harmful byproducts from the fire. They said water drainage from the site, which caused a sheen on the Delaware River, was being controlled.

The blast occurred in a production area that makes ethylene, a common organic chemical produced from butane and often used to make other chemicals such as polyethylene, polypropylene, and ethylene glycol, otherwise known as antifreeze.

Sunoco personnel shut down the feed of ethylene when the fire occurred, Delaware officials said. The ethylene unit is closed, but the rest of the refinery remained open.

Sunoco firefighters remained at the scene last night, but those from surrounding companies had departed.

One of the immediate tasks was to figure out what happened.

In a statement, the company said: "A full investigation is being conducted by a joint investigative team made up of members from the Office of the Delaware State Fire Marshal, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and Sunoco."

When contacted, company officials declined to elaborate.

"All we know is there was a fire and explosion," Delaware Fire Marshal Alan Brown said before the blaze was knocked down. It was unclear which had occurred first, he added.

The drama began with a house-shaking explosion - some people reported two blasts - and a fireball that lit the night sky at 10:15 Sunday. The flames were picked up by a Web camera 10 miles away at Philadelphia International Airport.

Some people thought it was an earthquake, others a car accident outside their house. One man said he thought a SWAT team was breaking down his door.

The blast sent homeowners into the streets, some covering their mouths with their shirts, fearing dangerous fumes.

"Everybody was leaving," said Tina McClintic, 47, of Green Street. "This street was empty."

Along Ridge Road in Claymont, Del., some took photos or shot video.

"I thought for sure they were going to have to evacuate us," said Richard Todd, 19, who lives with his mother.

The decision over whether to evacuate sparked confusion.

Edwin Truitt of the Delaware County Emergency Services Department said his organization did not get timely information from fire officials in Claymont.

"Here we have people calling in and saying they are being told to evacuate . . . and we did not have the information to tell them," he said.

Numerous phone messages left for Claymont fire officials were not returned yesterday.

Truitt said evacuation decisions are made case by case once the basics of a situation are known. For instance, in a chemical emergency, the direction of the wind would help determine the evacuation plan.

Marcus Hook Mayor George McClure was watching TV Sunday night when he got a call about the explosion from his daughter, who lives about five miles away. "I didn't even hear it, to tell you the truth," McClure said.

He stepped outside to see his neighbors on lawns and sidewalks, staring at the flames.

McClure said police were sent into the neighborhoods to tell residents that there was no need to evacuate. Rumors were running, and it was reported that someone had gone door to door telling people to leave.

Marcus Hook has been working for about a year to develop a phone-notification system. In the event an evacuation were needed, McClure said, notification would be made by police or firefighters going door to door, along with word being spread through the news media.

But Jeff Whitmarsh, spokesman for the Delaware State Police, complained yesterday that erroneous information on the location of the fire, possible evacuation plans, and the chemical involved was disseminated by some TV news broadcasts.

No residents interviewed yesterday in Marcus Hook or Claymont knew for certain whether an official evacuation plan existed.

"I've lived in Marcus Hook all my life, and I've never heard of an actual plan," said Liz Wilson, 37, who decided to leave with her 11-year-old daughter and stay with friends in Woodlyn.

Laura Keely, 52, of Claymont, said Evraz Claymont Steel, another large company, held town meetings about emissions and safety issues. She does not recall similar meetings with Sunoco.

"What will happen if there's a catastrophe over there?" she asked.

The explosion came three days after Pennsylvania officials fined the refinery $762,150 for air-quality permit violations.

"Sunoco emitted nearly twice the permitted limit of particulate matter and an average of four times the permitted level of ammonia from a unit at this facility for more than one year," Environmental Protection Southeast Regional Director Joseph Feola said in a statement.

The facility has had other environmental problems. According to an EPA database, a dozen formal enforcement actions have been brought against the refinery in the last five years by state and federal agencies. Penalties for those actions totaled $2.84 million.

Marcus Hook is a tiny riverfront borough, sandwiched between oil refineries, home to about 2,300. The Sunoco refinery covers nearly half the 1.1-square-mile borough. To the north, a smaller piece of town is occupied by part of the ConocoPhillips refinery.

Yesterday, refinery workers were amazed and grateful that no one was hurt in the explosion.

"When I heard about it," said Jerry Dugan, vice president of United Steelworkers of America Local 10-901, "the first thing that came to my mind was, 'Oh my God, who got killed?' "


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or

Contributing to this report were staff writers Harold Brubaker, Sandy Bauers, Tom Avril, Bob Fernandez, Robert Moran, and Kathleen Brady Shea.